Demands to shut it down. A waste of taxpayer money. A never-ending witch hunt.
The criticisms of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into President Donald Trump and Russia that have ratcheted up in recent months hearken back to the investigation that roiled Congress during the last administration: Benghazi.
The tables have turned with party doing the criticizing. And there are, of course, significant differences: The Benghazi Select Committee investigation was a congressional probe, while Mueller is a Justice Department-appointed special counsel who is leading a criminal investigation.
But there are still notable similarities over how the Mueller and Benghazi probes transformed into political flashpoints on Capitol Hill, bitterly dividing the two parties.
For months now, a growing number of Republicans have called on Mueller to wrap up his investigation, which originated as an FBI counterintelligence investigation in July 2016 that the special counsel took over in May 2017.
South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chaired the Benghazi Select Committee for more than two years, joined the chorus Thursday when the told Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to “finish it the hell up.”
“If you have evidence of wrongdoing by any member of the Trump campaign present it to the damn grand jury. If you have evidence that this President acted inappropriately, present it to the American people,” Gowdy said to Rosenstein, who supervises the Mueller probe. “Whatever you got, finish it the hell up, because this country is being torn apart.”
Gowdy’s comments sparked outrage from Democrats, who charged that Mueller has been on the case for a year less than Gowdy investigated Benghazi from 2014 to 2016.
“Chairman Gowdy urgently demanded that the Justice Department wrap up the investigation, yet he literally spent years and years investigating Hillary Clinton as part of the GOP’s eight-committee investigation of Benghazi, which resulted in nothing but a deluge of false Republican allegations that helped get Donald Trump elected President,” said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, who was the top Democrat on the Benghazi committee.
Democrats argue that the two probes are night and day. Benghazi was a congressional investigation designed to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign, they say, while Mueller has already landed indictments and guilty pleas from several senior members of the Trump campaign.
“There have already been five guilty pleas… one person’s already been sentenced,’ said Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat. “You can compare that to the Ken Starr Whitewater investigation, which lasted four years and produced nothing, or the seven congressional committees that went after the Benghazi holy grail and came back with nothing, including our beloved Mr. Gowdy.”
Benghazi by the numbers
The Benghazi Select Committee was tasked with investigating how four Americans were killed, including US Ambassador Chris Stephens, when attackers raided the US compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
The select committee itself was created by House Republicans in May 2014. The committee issued its final report on the Benghazi attack a little more than two years later in June 2016 and was officially shut down in December 2016. The select panel spent $7 million during the course of the probe.
The committee ultimately issued an 800-page report, which faulted the Obama administration on a number of fronts, and lawmakers questioned Clinton for 11 hours in an October 2015 hearing.
The length and cost of the investigation were two frequent points of criticism for Democrats, but the larger fight was whether the committee was really an effort to derail Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Gowdy said the Benghazi investigation wasn’t about targeting Clinton, but Democrats seized on comments from Republicans like Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said in October 2015 ahead of Clinton’s testimony that the probe had successfully driven her poll numbers down.
Cummings, the top Democrat on the select panel, said following McCarthy’s comments that the committee was “an unethical abuse of millions of taxpayer dollars and a crass assault on the memories of the four Americans who died.”
The Democratic report on the Benghazi investigation included a section titled: “Select Committee squandered millions of dollars in a partisan effort to attack a presidential candidate.”
Republicans pushed back against those criticisms, accusing Democrats of trying to shield Clinton.
“Most Democrats on the Benghazi committee have endorsed Clinton and they are now running a protection effort for the former Secretary,” the select committee said in an October 2015 statement.
In the end, the committee’s 800-page report did not contain any bombshells about Clinton’s actions — like the claim of a “stand down” order to help the Americans that was never proven. But it was the Benghazi committee that led to the revelation of Clinton’s private email server, which many Democrats say ultimately dragged down her campaign and allowed Trump to prevail in the 2016 election.
Attacking the investigation, then and now
Fast forward to 2018 and the tables have turned, with Trump and his Republican allies calling Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s team and Russia a partisan witch hunt and runaway waste of taxpayer dollars.
“There was No Collusion with Russia (except by the Democrats). When will this very expensive Witch Hunt Hoax ever end? So bad for our Country,” Trump tweeted earlier this month.
Mueller’s appointment was greeted with broad bipartisan support, but the barrage of attacks have dragged down his poll numbers, too, especially among Republicans.
Trump and his conservative allies have seized upon anti-Trump text messages exchanged between FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who both worked on Mueller’s team at one point, suggesting they have tainted the special counsel probe.
“I asked agent Strzok at least a half a dozen times, did special counsel Mueller or anyone on his team ever ask you about these troubling text messages and whether any of your actions taken, whether any of your decisions made and whether any of the evidence you collected may have been corrupted or tainted or in any way influenced by the hatred, bias, or prejudice expressed in these texts?” said Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican. “He repeatedly and unequivocally said no.”
Mueller was appointed as special counsel in May 2017, not long after James Comey was fired as FBI director. In the 13 months since his investigation began, Mueller’s team has charged nearly two dozen individuals and companies, including senior members of Trump’s team, and five people have pleaded guilty.
In a spending report released last month, Mueller’s team disclosed that it had spent $17 million since the special counsel was appointed in May 2017.
The charges brought by Mueller’s team are not connected to collusion between Trump’s team and Russia, which has also sparked criticism that Mueller is going after Trump’s team for charges that occurred well before the campaign even began.
But Democrats have countered that the charges show that Mueller’s investigation is legitimate and moving expeditiously — and they not his probe is not yet complete.
“I ask my colleagues to consider this question as we proceed,” said the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler. “When the special counsel’s work is complete, when the enormity of what he finds has been laid bare, how will the American people judge your actions today?”